Dave Chappelle might actually be a magician, because “He rapes, but he saves,” should not be funny.
Yet there it is: the full crowd barrel laugh. And there it is: my own laughter, at home, watching on Netflix.
What are we really laughing at? On its face, that line is a brutal, violent sentiment. And yes, if you haven’t seen “The Age of Spin,” the first of Chappelle’s four — FOUR??!! — standup specials on Netflix in 2017, I recommend that you stop reading this now, watch the special, and then return, because that line has to be seen to be believed. It’s the comedy equivalent of a David Blaine illusion, where you stare at his mouth the entire time yet he keeps on barfing up frogs.
That line is one of several times where Chappelle took heat in 2017 for his standup material. It came from both political parties, both genders, all orientations, and all races. Most famously, there was blowback for his jokes about the LGBT community, specifically transgender people, in the first two specials of 2017 — “The Age of Spin” and “Deep In the Heart of Texas” — and then in “Equanimity,” which was released New Years Eve (along with “The Bird Revelation”) and addressed the backlash for the trans jokes.
His routines about Bill Cosby, Emmett Till, Louis CK, Harvey Weinstein, and poor, white Trump voters also drew heat from various directions and various groups, including from ones that are politically opposed to each other.
My own take? Some of his LGBT routines in the first two 2017 specials were poorly conceived, because they included instances of the words “fag” and “dyke” in the same way that Chappelle uses the n-word or “bitch.” He wasn’t in character saying that particular f- or d-word. He was literally just saying them to refer to gays and lesbians. Not funny.
And then there were his routines about his dislike for “poor whites.” Unlike other groups he jokes about — and Dave jokes about EVERYONE — the odds that people who consider themselves “poor whites” would attend his show, watch his special, or in any way feel like they are inside the tent are unlikely. That was the unusual case where I agreed with the logic of his point but opposed the execution of that portion of the joke.
But artists take chances, and sometimes they make mistakes. I’ve seen it before with many groups at the receiving end, my own included, and I tend to chalk it up to a misfire within good art and move on.
Which is not to say that I subscribe to the notion that “You just don’t have a sense of humor,” or “Man, why is everyone so sensitive?” — I don’t. If a work of art contains content that you find offensive — or, more specifically, threatening — then you’re going to have the reaction that you naturally have, and that’s cool.
The reason I am willing to forgive Chappelle for the gay jokes that I don’t like is the same reason I don’t get too upset with, say, Clipse for a lyric about Jews on “Wamp Wamp,” in which they say that while cooking cocaine, “it cools to a tight wad, the Pyrex is Jewish.”
I love Clipse! So I shook that one off, and did so even when seeing them live at the Metro in 2007, and being just a tad freaked when I heard a room full of people rap that line in exuberance. It was a much different experience than hearing it on the CD, but that’s the nature of live art, and I moved past it.
Much worse than that is Quentin Tarantino dropping the N in “Pulp Fiction” four times in 30 seconds to Samuel L. Jackson, which to this day makes me grimace for two reasons, one being that it’s way more offensive than it is clever, and the other that I just don’t believe that Jules Winnfield would be so nonchalant about that language, even taking the circumstances of the scene into account.
What I could not abide from Tarantino, ultimately, was much of the content of “Django Unchained.” I walked out of the theaters the first time I saw that and did not watch to completion until a few months later. And yet, most of my black friends LOVE Django and thought Tarantino was on point with the script — listen to Dick Gregory for a beautiful summation — whereas I’ve gone from hatred of the film to mere distaste.
Unlike Tarantino, Chappelle writes his mea culpa into his material. He’s done it a few times. In a set at the Laugh Factory in 2010, while talking about Michael Richards’ racist meltdown also at the Laugh Factory, Chappelle said his reaction to Richards taught him that he was “20% black, 80% comedian.”
In “The Bird Revelation,” he challenges his fellow comics in the room to not be afraid to speak “recklessly.” In “Equanimity,” when he discusses the backlash to his transgender jokes, particularly from a trans fan who wrote him a letter to say that his jokes left her “devastated,” he explains that, “As a policy, you gotta understand, I never feel bad about anything I say up here.”
But perhaps his best explanation about the risk in art comes in “The Age of Spin,” when he describes his approach to comedy as analogous to motorcycle stunts.
“I’m like Evel Knievel,” he says. “I get paid for the attempt.”
He calls this idea something to the effect of “thrill of being wrong.” The idea, I think, contains two parts. The first is that real art, in any form, is inherently risky, and people have to be willing to give artists the benefit of the doubt based on their history, their intent, their content, their execution, and the possible payoff of their work. The payoff in that deal is that the artist will take us to a special place we cannot go on our own.
The second part of the “thrill of being wrong” is that artistic expression adheres to an art form, and the art form of standup comedy stipulates that you try to make people laugh, and the only true judgment on your attempt is whether or not they did, and that as comedy fans, we can’t hold statements made in standup routines to the same standard of truth and taste as we would a statement made in normal conversation.
Take Dave’s Mac Mittens bit, for instance, also from “Equanimity.” For me, this had the opposite effect of the “poor whites” bit. In this case, Dave said he disagreed with some of the reasons the media bashes Trump, and he used as an example Jared Kushner’s inclusion as a senior advisor.
As a Washington outsider, Dave says, Trump would want family members among his advisers because they would make him feel comfortable. The point is way off — people aren’t mad about Kushner’s inclusion because he’s an “outsider,” but because he was given loads of responsibilities for which he was not qualified, along with security clearances inappropriate for his needs.
But as a segue to an extended bit about Chappelle’s friend “Mac Mittens” who joins him at meetings, it was hilarious. The joke works, even if the real world logic that sets it up fails.
And that, in a way, brings us back to “He rapes, but he saves.”
When Dave delivers that line as the final knockout punch of “The Age of Spin,” it comes on the heels of an extended, rather serious segment on Bill Cosby’s legacy. “He rapes, but he saves” is a line that he sets up earlier in the show in a much sillier segment. That juxtaposition is part of the audacity that makes us laugh.
Because here’s the thing: as audience members, when we hear that line, we are not laughing at the idea of Bill Cosby raping, nor are we absolving Cosby of the alleged rapes because of the “he saves” portion of the line, which refers to Cosby’s decades of charity, education, and community uplift.
Our laugh is the result of Dave’s Evel Knievel moment. It’s the “attempt,” as it were. It’s the audacity to take such a sad, serious subject like Cosby’s alleged rapes and everything surrounding his probable guilt and attempt to turn it into an opportunity to feel just a bit better. And it works because the object of the joke is not the victims and not even Cosby, but rather our own conflicted human emotions about a real life hero who likely committed heinous crimes.
The pain Cosby’s probable victims feel can never be erased. The pain that people feel for many reasons when they learn about Cosby’s acts — that pain is real too. And Dave, through the boldness and courage of his comedy, is offering relief. He is giving people a safe space to laugh, and in doing so inviting them to bask in the magnitude of the attempt. The barrel laugh he gets on the line is the audience’s realization mixed with gratitude: we didn’t know we were going to see the attempt. And we didn’t know he would land it.
Jack M Silverstein is a sports historian covering the Bears for Windy City Gridiron. He is the author of “Our President” about Barack Obama supporters and “How The GOAT was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls.” Say hey at @readjack.